Nature is transcendental

Most of us realize that spending time in nature is good for mind and spirit. A new study by researchers at Stanford University more or less confirms it, according to a paper published in last month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.”

Honestly, I was confused by the title.  I always thought nature enhanced rumination or contemplation. But I didn’t know that in psychology, rumination means to focus excessively on one’s problems and to brood on why you might be depressed. So,  nature reducing rumination is a positive.

The researchers say their study “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

IMG_4821bEvidently, walking in natural areas simulates activity in a section of the brain that’s known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is connected to negative mental conditions and a negative pattern of thought the paper calls “morbid rumination.” They sent study participants to various areas on the Stanford campus and when the participants returned, the researchers scanned their brains. The result: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”

In other words, walking in nature is good for mind and spirit, and walking in urban areas is not so good. As I suggested at the top, this only confirms what most people already know.

I have written a great deal about how the sages and poets of the East found nature to be beneficial in this way. Naturally, they are not the only ones.

Two prominent naturalists from America’s past, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, had connections to Eastern philosophy but their appreciation of nature was firmly in place long before they became interested in the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tzu.

Thoreau’s name is practically synonymous with Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts formed by glaciers some 10,000–12,000 years ago. The place itself is famously associated with Naturalism. Emerson also wandered around Walden, and in 1846 he bought a wood-lot there, consisting of “more than forty acres, on the border of a little lake a half a mile wide and more, called Walden Pond,” as he wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher.

In his 1836 essay, Nature, Emerson complained that far too many people do not recognize the full worth and beauty of nature. In the essay, Emerson also set down some of the fundamentals of Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement linked to both Emerson and Thoreau. In another essay, The Transcendentalist, Emerson wrote a phrase I like: “Nature is Transcendental.”

Emerson’s view of nature differed a bit from the Eastern view. He saw nature as something outside the life of the individual, “all that is separate from us . . . the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.” The Buddhist/Taoist concept of “Not me” goes further and nature is viewed as profoundly  inter-connected with inner life.

Nature is transcendental (note the small ‘t’). And, when we use any of the forms of the word “transcendent,” we do not necessarily mean metaphysical. Transcendent can mean beyond the limits of ordinary experience, what cannot be expressed in words, or realization that “goes beyond,” which in Buddhism refers to Prajna-Paramita or Transcendental Wisdom.

I would suggest transcendental can also be “going back,” in that it we can recapture a quality of childhood, the innocence, the sense of wonder, the “original mind” we had before our brains became cluttered with all the disorderly and tangled notions we’ve acquired as adults. I think others have commented on the same child-like orientation connected with spirituality, and judging by this passage from Nature, Emerson would seem to have been one of them.

ralph-waldo-emersonTo speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Note Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”


Not Knowing

In Buddhism, we say that the root of sufferings is our fundamental ignorance or avidya, a fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, as I wrote in the last post, not knowing the true nature of reality.

There is a flip side to “not knowing” and that is the wisdom of knowing that you know nothing. Both Zen Buddhism and Taoism place a great deal of emphasis on the value of not knowing.

There’s the famous Zen story about the student who asked a teacher, “What is the essence of Buddha-dharma?” The teacher replied, “Not attaining, not knowing.”

The Taoist sage, Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching, “It is beneficial to know nothing. Pretending to know is a disease.”

schultzNot-knowing is not the exclusive providence of Eastern philosophy, even Western philosophers such as Rudolph Steiner have weighed in on the subject. He once said, “You are right to think you know nothing; but this is not because you are incapable but because the whole world is unable to know anything.” *

I can’t speak for Steiner but as far as Buddhism and Taoism are concerned, the purpose of a teaching like not knowing is to help us unlearn, for developing wisdom is partially a process of disabusing ourselves from the many false notions we have held all our lives. It’s letting go of our preconceived ideas and awakening to a more natural and direct understanding of how things are. Lao Tzu called this “illumination” (Ch. ming).

Of course, there is always some wiseacre who comes along, like the Tang dynasty poet Po Chu-i:

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

– – – – – – – – – –

* Rudolf Steiner, From Beetroot to Buddhism: Answers to Questions : Sixteen Discussions with Workers at the Goetheanum in Dornach Between 1 March and 25 June 1924, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, 188


Reality, a process: Interdependence, Emptiness and Physics

At a teaching I attended in 2002, the Dalai Lama said that the principle of “dependent origination is the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism.”

bodhi-treeIndeed, it is. In one of the versions of the Buddha’s crucial night of analytical discovery via meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, it is precisely dependent origination that he realized.  This analysis is a core teaching and the foundation for the philosophy of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school and nearly the entire Mahayana tradition.

In early Buddhism, dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) was primarily used to explain the law of causation, the chain of cause, effect, and conditioning:

Ignorance > Karma > Consciousness > Name-Form > Senses > Contact > Feeling > Craving > Grasping > Becoming > Old age and death > Rebirth

The fundamental state of being is ignorance, conditioned by the imprints or seeds of past actions, habits and relationships (karma), which gives rise to consciousness, which is joined to name-form (the psycho-physical entity, specifically the embryo in the womb), which activates the six-senses; the senses come into contact with objects of desire and as a result, feeling, craving and grasping arise; these factors cause and condition the becoming of life and all that is becoming (existing) is subject to old age and death, and with the theory of rebirth, everything is set to be repeated in a future life, a continuum of consciousness within an seemingly endless cycle of birth and death.

By the time the Mahayana tradition was established, the focus of the analysis was less on how things come to be and more about how nothing can exist by itself, that everything is interconnected and inter-related. This is one reason why I prefer to describe pratitya-samutpada as interdependence. Dependent origination or dependent arising sounds too much like a form of creationism.

For Nagarjuna, the architect of Madhyamaka philosophy, interdependence was synonymous with emptiness (sunyata). In one respect, Nagarjuna’s teachings were a response and rejection of earlier Buddhist teachings presented in the Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali), texts that contained detailed analyses of dharmas or “things”, which became the theoretical foundation for the Buddhist conception of reality. In the Abhidharma view, individuals are empty of “self”, but dharmas have own-being (svabhava). These dharmas are the building blocks of the universe and while they have only a momentary duration, their nature is fixed and irreducible. This concept projected a reality that was particle-like, similar to the Newton/Cartesian view of reality. In science, quantum physics deconstructed that view. In Buddhism, it was the Prajna-Paramita sutras and the commentaries by Nagarjuna which destroyed the Abhidharma view.

The true nature of reality (paramarthasatya) can be termed as the “emptiness of own-being” (svabhava-sunyata) and “interdependency” (pratitya-samutpada). Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka’s taught that neither an individual nor dharma have an own-being that exists by its own right.

In a recent post, I mentioned the Sanskrit word parikalpita, meaning imaginary or the “imagined.” The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms defines it as “Counting everything as real, the way of the unenlightened; The nature of the unenlightened, holding to the tenet that everything is calculable or reliable, i.e. is what it appears to be.” Paraikapita is one of the three natures (tri-svabhava) that imagines a duality between subject and object. This imagined reality is an illusion, a thought construction superimposed on the true reality. Like a veil, it conceals the truth of emptiness/interdependency and all we see in our ordinary experience is an apparent reality, in which things appear to exist by their own right and seem to possess a nature or being that is permanent, independent, unconditioned and designed.

Mu Soeng Sunim in his book Heart Sutra Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality, gives us a glimpse into how emptiness and interdependency compare to modern physics:

Energy, whether of wave of particle, is associated with activity, with dynamic change. Thus the core of the universe – whether we see it as the heart of the atom or our own consciousness – is not static but in a state of constant and dynamic change. This energy – now wave, now particle – infuses each and every form at the cellular level. No form exists without being infused by this universal energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly in a ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our universe. This universal energy is itself a process . . .”

In this way, we could also say that reality is a process.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, any duality between subject and object is considered to be imagined (parikalpita again); there is no independently existing ‘experiencer’ apart from the experience, and experience can be also designated as a process. As Sumin notes, in the world of subatomic physics there are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles but these particles are literally empty.

2001a2So, we are aware now that reality is not particle-like but more like the nature of space. The common idea of space is an empty three-dimensional area. But there is no empty space (if by empty space, one means nothingness), space is actually permeated with an impalpable continuum. But the three dimensional aspect we perceive is somewhat of an illusion, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is not the full reality. Not long ago some researchers, attempting to find a solution to the puzzle of space-time dimensionality, using a supercomputer, found that when the universe was created by the Big Bang, it had 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and 1 temporal – but only 3 of the spatial dimensions expanded. As I understand it, since only 3 dimensions expanded, and ours is an expanding universe, this accounts for the appearance that we live in a 3 dimensional reality. As Shakespeare said, “there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in your science books.” Or, something like that.

One of the great benefits of Buddhism is that it helps us to see things as they are without having to become physicists, and we are encouraged to consider the possibility of seeing things differently, from various angles. Nothing is fixed, static. Many people tend to equate emptiness with nothingness. A better way to look at it is to think of emptiness as an expanse, particularly an expanse of mind, for one aspect of emptiness is that it means awareness, it is the penetrating insight into the actual nature of reality. Since Buddhism is also concerned with the problem of suffering, it’s helpful to view it as an expanse as well. Lex Hixon, in The Mother of the Buddhas, writes,

The relative truth of existence is that it is an expanse of suffering beings, a condition which is the motivation for the precious Mahayana commitment to universal conscious awakening. This relative truth of suffering must not be swallowed up, even subtly, by the absolute truth that Reality is an inherently selfless expanse, empty space, intrinsically peaceful.”

2001bAwareness is an expanse and like the universe, it should be ever expanding. That is why I don’t accept anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, “supreme perfect enlightenment.” If awareness is not static, then neither is enlightenment; it too is a process.

Finally, interdependency or pratitya-samutpada – the insubstantiality, the interconnectedness, the expansiveness of reality – is not only the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism, it is also the ground of the diverse world. Emptiness is the cause of interdependency and emptiness is not only a synonym for interdependence, it is also a synonym for something else:

That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its saha (mundane) nature is itself Nirvana in its unconditioned (ultimate) nature.”

– Nagarjuna, “Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra”


Let it be the flower

The great American poet Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was a religious man who referred to his grandfather as his “guiding light.”  His grandfather happened to be a Unitarian minister who advocated for religion without dogma and was open to the concept of evolution. I am not sure what Aiken’s concept of God was, whether he believed in concept of a literal supreme being or not.  Aiken once told the Paris Review he viewed himself as “a preacher” of “new knowledge.” Of course, he did not mean he was a preacher in any conventional sense. I think his true religion was poetry.

However, from his poem “A Letter from Li Po” I presume he admired Chinese poetry (Li Po was a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty), and I imagine that he must had some understanding of Eastern Philosophy. To me, a number of his poems evince appreciable Buddhist/Taoist-like aspects.

In honor of the 116th anniversary of his birth, here is one Aiken poem that I have always thought might have been inspired by the famous story told about a time when the Buddha was sitting with the bhikkhus on Vulture Peak and everyone expected the Buddha to give a dharma talk but instead of speaking he simply held up a flower. No one understood except for a bhikkhu named Mahakasyapa, who communicated his grasp of the Buddha’s message by smiling.

I shared an excerpt from this poem once and you can find other posts of mine featuring Aiken’s poetry here and here.


Mysticism, but let us have no words,
angels, but let us have no fantasies,
churches, but let us have no creeds,
no dead gods hung in crosses in shop,
nor beads nor prayers nor faith nor sin nor penance:
and yet, let us believe, let us believe.

pink_rose_closeupLet it be the flower
seen by the child for the first time, plucked without
broken for love and as soon forgotten:

and the angels, let them be our friends,
used for our needs with selfish simplicity,
broken for love and as soon forgotten;

and let the churches be our houses
defiled daily, loud with discord,–
where the dead gods that were our selves may hang,
our outgrown gods on every wall;
Christ on the mantelpiece, with downcast eyes;
Buddha above the stove;
the Holy Ghost by the hatrack, and God himself
staring like Narcissus from the mirror,
clad in a raincoat, and with hat and gloves.

Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let it be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached–
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall,–
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.


Cecil the Lion, and the Story of Savari the Hunter and Kuan Yin

By now you must have heard about Cecil the Lion. But if you haven’t, here is a brief account of the facts:

cecilCecil was a 13 year old lion that roamed Zimbabwe’s Hwange national park. (See him on the left in an undated photo from by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit – click to enlarge). Cecil was a popular cat, a favorite attraction for tourists visiting the park. Reportedly, a dentist from Minnesota paid $50,000 to a professional hunter for the opportunity to kill poor Cecil. They allegedly lured Cecil out of the sanctuary, shot and wounded him with an arrow. After they tracked him for 40 hours, they finished him off with a rifle, skinned him and removed his head.

Once the story hit the Internet, it went viral, and many were outraged. It is a sad fact that Americans regularly kill that lions, elephants, rhinos and other big game animals for “sport.” It’s sad that anyone does. I say if you’re going to shoot big game, use a camera.

I’m outraged, too. But there is little I can do other than add my voice to the protest by sharing this story with you, originally from the Tibetan biographies of the Eighty-Four Siddhas, who flourished between the seventh and eleventh century C.E. I’ve adapted it from Lama Anagarika Govinda’s version found in “Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness”:

Savari was a hunter who was very proud of his strength and his marksmanship. The only thing he did in life was to kill animals.

He was out hunting one day and he saw a stranger, also a hunter, approaching. He thought, “This guy has a lot of nerve hunting in my territory.” When the stranger drew up, Savari could not help but notice that he looked just like him. It was as if he were gazing into a mirror.

“Who are you?” Savari demanded.

“I am a hunter,” the stranger replied.

“And what is your name?”

“It is Savari.”

“How can that be? I am Savari. Where do you come from?”

“A far-away country.”

Savari didn’t like any of this. He decided to test the stranger.

“Can you kill more than one deer with a single arrow?”

The stranger said, “I can kill 300 with a single shot.”

“That’s pretty big talk. I’d like to see you back it up.”

kuan-yin-2015-2At that moment, the stranger magically created a herd of 500 deer. What Savari did not know what that the stranger was actually Kuan Yin who had taken Savari’s form because she felt pity for him.

The stranger then fired off an arrow and accomplished the feat he had boasted of with ease. “If you have any doubts about it, go fetch one of the deer.”

Savari went to the closet fallen deer but when he tried to lift it, he could not because it was too heavy. “Well,” said the stranger, “You must not be much of a hunter if you cannot lift one deer.”

This broke Savari’s pride completely and he went up to the stranger, fell on his knees, and begged the stranger to teach him.

Kuan Yin said, “If you want to learn this magic shooting art, you must first purify yourself for a month by not eating meat and by meditating on love and compassion toward all living things. Do that, and then I will return and share my secret.”

Savari did was he was instructed and a month later, he was a changed man but he had not yet realized it. When Kuan Yin returned, Savari ask to be shown the magic way of shooting.

Kuan Yin, still in the form of the stranger, drew an elaborate mandala, adorned it with flowers, and told Savari, who was accomplied by his wife, to look at the mandala carefully.

The husband and wife, who had seriously practiced meditation for a full month, were able to concentrate on the mandala with one-pointedness of mind, and as they did, the ground below them seemed to open up and reveal the bowels of the earth.

“What do you see?” asked Kuan Yin.

Savari and his wife were speechless, for they gazed upon the eight great hells and the agonizing suffering of innumerable living beings.

Kuan Yin asked again, “What do you see?”

As the husband and wife peered further they recognized two painfully contorted faces. And they cried out, “It is ourselves!”

They scrambled away from the mandala and Kuan Yin became herself and Savari and his wife implored her to teach them the way of liberation, and they forgot entirely about the magic way of shooting and the sport of hunting. After this, Savari devoted his time to meditation on loving-kindness and became one of the Eighty-Four Siddhas.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the moral of this story. But I will tell you that the tale was transformed into a well-known Zen fable about Shih-Kung and Ma-tsu, that was probably first presented to Western readers in D.T. Suzuki’s “Essays in Zen Buddhism” series published in the 1920s and ’30s.  Shih-Kung is a hunter who hates Buddhist monks.  One day he is confronted by Master Ma-tsu who convinces him to renounce hunting. Shih-Kung then becomes a monk and one version of the story has it that after Shih-kung became enlightened, whenever he was asked about the dharma, he would draw his bow and arrow and aim at the questioner.